You wouldn’t think it possible to screw up something as simple as a business lunch. What’s so tough about going to a restaurant, ordering lunch, and talking with a colleague or subordinate over some nice food? We’ve all had tougher tasks. Still, you’d be surprised at some of the stories I’ve heard about disastrous lunch meetings. For that matter, I’ve sat through a few myself. In this column, I’m going to give you some suggestions on how to keep your lunch meetings professional and productive.

It depends on what the meaning of “lunch meeting” is
Before we dig into this, let’s agree on what we mean by a lunch meeting. I want to exclude two kinds of meetings. The first is when a vendor (or a prospective vendor) invites you out to lunch. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what I am concerned with here. After all, when the vendor takes you out to lunch, you just have to eat your food and listen to the pitch.

Another type of lunch meeting I want to ignore for now is the working lunch where you gather together a task force in a conference room and bring in food—typically pizza, in my experience. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this kind of meeting, but it requires a different set of rules.

Discuss this topic for a chance to win a TechRepublic mug

In our Discussion Center, we’re talking about how to make the most out of a business lunch. To add to the discussion, post your comment to this article. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to an Artner’s Law column will win a nifty TechRepublic coffee mug.

To find out who each week’s winner is and to subscribe to Artner’s Law, sign up for the TechRepublic TechMail now.

For right now, let’s concentrate on those occasions when you invite a peer or subordinate out to lunch, for business purposes. There are several reasons for such a meeting:

  • Discussion of a specific project: Since almost all IT managers have more on their plate than they can handle, it makes sense to take advantage of lunchtime to keep working. For this kind of meeting, you’re simply changing the location of the meeting from your office or a conference room to a restaurant. In other words, there is no real significance to the fact that you’re meeting outside the office.
  • Bonding or teambuilding: You manage people, not machines or processes. You need to spend time with your direct reports to build professional relationships with them. In my experience, getting them out of the office for an hour over a decent meal is a terrific way to do precisely that.
  • Brainstorming: Sometimes changing your environment gives your creativity a boost and allows you and your lunch guest to come up with a solution to a problem that had eluded you back at the office. As Spock said at the end of Amok Time: “It is not logical, but it is very often true.”
  • Job interviews: For both internal and external job candidates, going out to lunch often produces a better interview. Sitting across the table at a restaurant can be less intimidating than sitting across someone’s desk. If nothing else, it broadens the scope of available small talk.
  • Discussion of a problem or confidential news: While this type of meeting may require delicate handling, a lunch meeting off-site may be the best place to confront an employee about subpar performance or to reveal some news about the organization that isn’t for general consumption. As we’ll discuss below, this kind of meeting can be tricky.

Points to consider while reviewing the menu
Regardless of the reason for your lunch meeting, below are several suggestions on how to avoid problems.

Ask, don’t tell
Scheduling a meeting during lunch is a little different than setting up a meeting for 9:30 A.M. Many employees like to have lunch with friends or coworkers, or they need to run quick errands while they are out. Also, I’ve found that many employees aren’t as fastidious about blocking out lunch engagements on their calendars as they should be. I think that follows from their belief that lunch is usually their time and not at the call of the organization. For all those reasons, couch your lunch meeting as a request and be flexible about the day, if at all possible. This is especially true with new employees. As your team gets to know you better, this may become less important. After all, most folks won’t pass up a free meal!

Open your calendar
Make sure your people know that they can request a lunch meeting with you, when necessary. For all the reasons listed above that you prefer to schedule a meeting outside the office, one of your employees might feel the same. Ensure that your folks know that you’re comfortable with them requesting a lunch meeting on your calendar. (Of course, this is another reason why you need to keep your calendar up to date.)

Consider the place
This seems obvious, but some restaurants are better suited than others for a lunch meeting. Ideally, you want a place that isn’t too crowded or too noisy. Also, since you may be discussing confidential information, don’t go to a place where the tables are so close together that you have no privacy. Finally, don’t forget your guest’s needs. I love Chinese food, for example, and could probably eat it every day for lunch. However, I know that some people have an inexplicable aversion to Chinese food. Further, some of the folks who work for me are vegetarians, which knocks out other restaurants from consideration. When in doubt, ask your guest where he or she would like to go.

Don’t be mysterious
Especially when dealing with a subordinate, make you sure you explain the purpose of the lunch meeting. You don’t have to publish an agenda—it can be something as simple as “I’d like to have lunch tomorrow to discuss the Project calendar for next quarter.” If you don’t have anything in particular to talk about, you can always write, “I’d just like to get the chance to catch up and hear how things are going from your perspective.” By telling your guest up-front the purpose of the meeting, you can prevent a good deal of anxiety. The only exception to this rule is when you want to talk to an employee about poor performance or bad judgment. In that case, you don’t want to give the person a couple of days to stew about the meeting before it happens.

Consider your tone
This really applies only to those times when you have to confront an employee about his or her performance. My advice is that while it is possible (sometimes even desirable) to have those meetings over lunch, it depends on your tone. If you want to have a meeting with a subordinate that basically lays down the law (“You need to improve your performance immediately, or else…”), you should have that meeting in your office or in a conference room. On the other hand, if you want to play the role of coach or mentor (“This kind of performance isn’t like you—what can I do to help turn this around?”), then a lunch meeting might be completely appropriate.

You pay
This is just common sense, but if you call the meeting, you pay for lunch. In fact, I would argue that even if your subordinate requests a lunch meeting, you should pay. After all, you probably make more money and have a bigger expense account.